49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

June 29, 2007
Of mistakes and team secrets

Question: I hate to be a nitpicker, but Justin Smiley was a second-round pick (No. 14 in the second round). Do you think that the 49ers are planning to trade him before the Week 6 trading deadline? I know that Nolan is famous for pulling Billy Beane-esque trade deadline deals. I know that we might take a hit on the offensive line depth, but if we could get more than a third-round pick (which we'd probably get as a comp pick if he winds up signing his huge free-agent deal next year), we would be in a great position to trade up from the heights of Indy's pick next year and still be able to retain our second-rounder next year (hopefully also very high).

Joshua, Fair Oaks

Answer: Stupid, stupid, stupid. I wrote earlier in the week that Smiley was a third-rounder when in fact he was a second-rounder. Mea culpa. As far as trading him during the season, I highly doubt it. Unless a team is so riddled with offensive-line injuries that it can't function, it wouldn't trade a second-rounder for a guy they could get on the free-agent market after the season. And remember, a team that trades for Smiley this season still would have to re-sign him at the end of the year. (The 49ers went through a similar scenario with soon-to-be free agent Nate Clements last season.) No one knows exactly how the NFL calculates compensatory picks. It's sort of like the secret formula of Coke or the inner workings of Dick Cheney's office. I would imagine that if Smiley left before the '08 season and started 16 games for his new team, the 49ers would get an additional fourth-rounder in '09.

- Matt Barrows

Question: Going into training camp, teams are allowed to carry a heavy roster. Which players are on the cusp of being cut here during training camp? The team has a lot offensive and defensive lineman; it creates excellent depth but takes valuable roster spot. It seems they have allow of linebackers as well. How many of each position do you project them keeping?

Scott, Elk Grove

Answer: I've been crunching the numbers lately. I think the 49ers will keep 10 offensive linemen (Estes being No. 10), seven defensive linemen and eight linebackers. Given that Arnaz Battle and Marcus Robinson each played quarterback in college, I also can see the team going with two quarterbacks, Smith and Dilfer, on the active roster, which might allow them one more player at any other position. Injuries -- and maybe even a trade -- obviously will alter these numbers.

- Matt Barrows

Question: With the competition this year, there are going to be some good players cut, but do you see any big surprises this year? I suppose the best comparison from last year would be letting go of Terry Jackson.

Billy, Los Gatos

Answer: Could be, but I'm not anticipating anything drastic. All the longtime 49ers veterans (guys not drafted by Nolan) are here because they've gained Nolan's confidence over the past few years. One player to keep an eye on is Maurice Hicks, who will have a devil of a time holding off rookie Thomas Clayton for the No. 3 running back spot. At this point, however, Hicks is still the best option at kick returner.

- Matt Barrows

June 27, 2007
Larry Allen retiring?

Two and a half years after arriving in San Francisco, Mike Nolan and personnel chief Scot McCloughan have amassed one of the deepest offensive lines in recent 49ers history. But don't expect it to last long.

Three of the team's projected starters - Kwame Harris, Justin Smiley and Larry Allen - are playing the final year of their contract and there's a very good chance none will be re-signed. There's even a slight chance the most famous of the trio, Allen, won't play again.

When I asked McCloughan today whether the left guard would play a 14th season, McCloughan thought he would. But he didn't sound positive. He admitted there has been some talk Allen might retire, a notion bolstered by the fact that the big guard did not take part in minicamp or the team's recent OTAs.

Allen, who rarely got hurt in 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, missed five games last season in his first year with the 49ers. He's a lock for the Hall of Fame, might be the best interior lineman ever, has been voted to 11 Pro Bowls and has a Super Bowl ring. Which is to say he has nothing left to prove.

While Allen was absent during the recent team practices (he received an excused absence from Nolan) McCloughan said Allen has made several visits to the team's practice facility this spring and that he looked as if he had been staying in shape at the gym he built for his East Bay home. Calls to Allen's agent were not returned.

On the off chance Allen does not return, the 49ers have a plan. Adam Snyder, the team's top backup lineman the past two years, practiced at left guard all spring and it appears he is being groomed for the position. Tony Wragge, one of the strongest players on the roster, filled in at left guard when Allen was injured last year and also could play there this year.

Here's where things stand at the other offensive line positions:

Left tackle - Snyder also has been the top fill-in here and has played extensively because of starter Jonas Jennings' extensive injury history. Nolan intimated during OTAs that Snyder again would be the top backup this season, but the team is very interested in how Patrick Estes performs this summer.

Estes, a converted tight end, is in his third offseason with the team. He is bigger - about 310 pounds - and played with the first team throughout the spring session. If he proves his worth in the preseason, it might allow Snyder, who has been asked to play multiple positions, to concentrate on left guard. Estes also is in the final year of his contract.

Center - Eric Heitmann proved his toughness in December when he broke his leg and didn't make a peep and then proved it again this spring by making a remarkably quick recovery. Barring a setback, he will be the team's opening-week starter with Wragge his backup. David Baas also could step in in an emergency.

Right guard - This is shaping up to be one of the best battles of training camp. The 49ers made Baas the 33rd overall pick in 2005, but in two years he has been unable to edge out Justin Smiley, a third-round pick by the previous coaching regime.

With guards being rewarded handsomely on the free-agent market in recent years, Smiley has a lot to play for this season. He missed OTAs while recovering from shoulder surgery but should be healthy for training camp. The 49ers fielded trade offers for Smiley during the draft, but talks since have cooled and it appears he will remain a 49er in 2007. His presence beyond this season, however, is unlikely given the salary he will command and the investment the team already has made in Baas.

Right tackle - Harris wins the title for "Least Popular 49er" among fans. The 49ers used a first-round pick on Harris in 2003 with the hope he would be their left tackle of the future. As it turns out, he has had mixed results at the less-demanding right tackle spot.

Four years later, the 49ers again used a first-round draft pick on an offensive lineman, Joe Staley of Central Michigan. Staley played right tackle with the first team when Harris went down with back spasms earlier this month. Even if Harris wrestles back his starting position, it likely will be his final year with the team.

- Matt Barrows

June 26, 2007
Lelie on the bubble

Question: Hello Matt! Just read your article about the receivers, particularly the difficult time Maxwell will have making the 53-man roster. However, I don't think you touched on the obviously growing disappointment in Lelie in that article. I've followed your other blogs where you've stated that Nolan was pretty "peeved" that Lelie didn't practice and I've heard Hostler state in other articles you've written that he's openly "concerned" about Lelie. Given the obvious issues with Lelie, do you still think Maxwell will have such a hard (almost impossible time) making the 53-man roster?

Sid, San Antonio

Answer: Hey, Sid. You raise a good point. Nolan and Hostler definitely were peeved that Lelie essentially watched spring practices from the sideline instead of establishing some sort of connection with Alex Smith. But I think it's also obvious that they want him on the team. There was a reason they were so frank when asked about Lelie. I believe it was a calculated attempt to have Lelie, who's not exactly the most intense guy, show up on July 28 champing at the bit with plenty to prove. A guy like Lelie is essential for the 49ers' down field offense. Though there are guys who could possibly fill that role - Bryan Gilmore, Jason Hill, Marcus Maxwell - each of them could use a little more seasoning. I'm looking for Lelie to finally make an impact in training camp. If he continues to malinger, you're right, his time in a 49ers uniform will be short-lived.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Matt, your Niner writings are very concise and informative. Keep up the solid work. BTW, now that I know that Darrell Green is your favorite player, I also know that you know your football. Sometimes Niner fans can have blinders on, but Green was as good as it gets during his Redskins career.

Owen, Walnut Creek

Answer: Thanks. I definitely think Darrell is one of the all-time greats at cornerback, but two other things launch him into favorite-player status. First, he runs a very successful charity/foundation in the D.C. area. And two, he's one of the nicest guys on the planet. I know this because when I was a boy, he and his wife moved into the house across the street. Darrell used to play pick-up football and basketball with the neighborhood boys. He was the antithesis of the stereotypical selfish athlete.

-- Matt Barrows

Question: Hi Matthew, I have two questions for you. How did Jason Hill do in the OTAs? I haven't heard a lot about him lately. And how many DBs do you think the Niners will take to the season?

Gabriel, Rio de Janiero

Answer: Hi Gabriel - I wish I knew how to say "hello" in Portugese. I addressed Hill in another answer. As far as defensive backs, I see the 49ers keeping four cornerbacks and four safeties. That means Marcus Hudson and Tarell Brown would duke it out for one of the cornerback spots while Dashon Goldson and Vickiel Vaughn would fight for the last safety spot. Should be the most interesting training camp in recent memory.

-- Matt Barrows

June 25, 2007
Can Maxwell catch on?

In our nationís capital, the talk is about quarterback Casey Bramlet, the MVP of the World Bowl this past weekend, and whether he has a shot at making a Redskins roster that is loaded at quarterback.

The folks in 49erland could be asking the same question about Marcus Maxwell, Bramletís top target. Maxwell was a monster in Europe, er, Europa this spring, finishing with 32 catches for 499 yards and a league-high seven touchdown receptions. In Hamburgís World Bowl win, he had five catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

Maxwell seems to be everything Mike Nolan and Scot McLoughan want in a receiver - heís tall (6-4), strong (215 pounds) and a willing blocker. His problem, however, is the same as Bramletís. While those two guys were making spectacular plays together in Germany this spring, the players they will be competing against for roster spots were getting plenty of practice in front of the coaching staff.

The offense that new 49ers coordinator Jim Hostler is installing is not that different from the downfield-passing system Norv Turner ran last year. Then again, he also is throwing in a few wrinkles from the west-coast offense that Maxwell will have to learn when he arrives for training camp.

The question 49ers fans will be asking right up to cut-down day is which receivers will make the final squad. Last year, the team kept only five receivers on the active roster. Maxwell was a member of the practice squad.

The 49ers lost one member of that group, Antonio Bryant, in the offseason but added three others in Ashley Lelie, Darrell Jackson and third-round draft pick Jason Hill. Assuming those guys make squad, that leaves two slots. Arnaz Battle gets one as the teamís most consistent and dependable wideout and the only one who can genuinely say he has developed a rapport with Alex Smith (more on that in a later blog).

The battle for the last spot, then, would be a dogfight between Brandon Williams, Bryan Gilmore, Taylor Jacobs and Maxwell. Who would get cut?

Williams was a third-round pick last season and appears to have the edge in the punt-returner competition. He also has looked sharp as a receiver this spring and itís very hard to imagine the 49ers not finding a place for him.

Gilmore, while not a fan favorite, is beloved by the coaching staff, especially receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, because he is a blue-collar worker with sprinterís speed. Gilmore is valuable on special teams and also came through with several clutch catches late last season.

With Jackson and Lelie injured, Jacobs saw a lot of action this spring. He might be a better pass catcher than Williams or Gilmore, but he has been injury-prone in past seasons. It also should be noted that Jacobs beat out Maxwell for a roster spot last year.

Injuries, of course, will play a role in the final roster decisions. And the 49ers could end up keeping six, not five, receivers in 2007. But that would only force the team to make tough decisions at other positions, such as linebacker and offensive line.

The bottom line is that while Maxwell may have been an all star in Europe, he will have a Sea Devil of a time (sorry, couldnít resist) making the final roster stateside.

June 24, 2007
How about those receivers?

Question: What's up, Matt? I would like to know your opinion so far on WR Jason Hill. With the WR injuries, do you think he has a shot a becoming a starter this season? How about the other WRs - have any of them shown potential in the OTAs? Thanks.

Ricky, San Mateo

Answer: What up, Ricky? The thing that struck me about Hill is that he's not a little guy. A lot of times the guys who run phenomenal 40s at the combine - which Hill did - arrive at minicamp with fragile sprinters' bodies. Hill has thick legs and thick arms, which is what endeared him to McCloughan and Nolan, who love big-bodied players.

That said, I'm not sure how much playing time he'll see this season. It's not that he played poorly at the recent OTAs. In fact, he made a lot of nice catches. It's just that, like any rookie, he's learning the playbook from scratch. The only way he sees plays early in the season, at least, is if there's a rash of injuries. As far as the receivers who looked good, Arnaz Battle is Mr. Consistent while Brandon Williams showed he is hard to cover while lining up in the slot. Whether he does as well in full-contact practices remains to be seen. Can't wait to see Marcus Maxwell in action, too.

- Matt Barrows

June 24, 2007
Defense has a swagger

Question: I'm curious about the outside linebacker situation. We have heard about Jay Moore but how are Manny Lawson, Tully Banta-Cain and Parys Haralson doing? Is Roderick Green getting any play? Do you like Greg Manusky's style of 3-4? Is he attacking the offense and sending 'backers from all angles or is it too early to tell? Keep up in the good work, Matt. You rule!

Jason, Los Angeles

Answer: Manusky seems to be a great guy to play for. You can tell there's a lot more swagger to the defense this year. Part of that can be attributed to the players the 49ers added (Nate Clements and Banta-Cain in particular) and part is because of key players such as Manny Lawson feeling more comfortable. But I think Manusky allows them to play loosely as well. By all accounts, the defensive meeting room is a pretty lively place.

Remember, the OTA practices were noncontact (mostly), so it's hard to say how much more aggressive the defense will be this year. But with Lawson, Banta-Cain, Brandon Moore and Michael Lewis all capable of rushing the quarterback on any given down, you can bet the pressure will be much improved. I thought Banta-Cain looked better and better as OTAs went on. Haralson and Green had backup duty. I'm not sure how many linebackers will make the final roster, but you have to believe Green is on the bubble.

- Matt Barrows

June 24, 2007
Coaches high on McDonald

Question: It seems to me the '06 49ers' biggest limitation was their passing attack and their inability to pressure the opposing team's passing attack. I was looking forward to hearing great things concerning the play of Jason Hill and Ray McDonald during OTAs. Too many darn three-and-outs, while the other teams are able to stay on the field. These are the only two issues that separate the 49ers from teams like the Chargers, Patriots, and the Cowboys of the '90s. Love to see Bryant Young get one more ring.

Ladale, Memphis, Tenn.

Answer: Hey, Ladale. It's hard to evaluate anyone during noncontact OTAs, but it's especially hard to evaluate defensive ends. That being said, I know the coaching staff feels as if McDonald was one of the steals of the draft. And the fact he was practicing a lot with the first-team defense ought to tell you he made a very nice impression early. As for Hill, I addressed him in an earlier answer. I thought he, too, looked very good but that it might be awhile before he sees meaningful playing time. If B.Y., who began his 49ers career with a Super Bowl, ends it with his second, it would be pure poetry for one of the classiest guys in the game.

- Matt Barrows

June 21, 2007
Final OTA observations

To borrow a phrase from Alice Cooper: School's out for summer.

The 49ers held their final OTA practice Thursday afternoon, the first day of summer, and will not meet again formally until they report for training camp July 28. Incidentally, team officials said the training-camp set up will be like it was last summer - with about 10 sessions open to the public.

With that in mind, here are my final observations from the spring sessions, in which the 49ers seemed to have quite a bit more swagger than they've shown in previous seasons.

Pleasant surprises

Vernon Davis - Attention fantasy football freaks: If offseason practices are any indication of what will come in the regular season, expect Davis to account for 85 percent of the 49ers' passing attack. Davis was ubiquitous this spring. Part of that stems from the fact that the 49ers simply don't have a lot of tight ends, and Davis was used heavily in practice. But it's mostly because he is a handful - even in noncontact practices - for linebackers and defensive backs. His hands, an obvious flaw last season, seem to be much improved this year.

Nate Clements - One of the perils of paying a guy a lot of money is that his newfound wealth will put a damper on his drive and determination. That doesn't seem to be the case with Clements. He practiced hard every day of OTAs and seems to genuinely love football. The chatter level was a lot higher in practice this spring, most of it coming from Clements.

The rookies - It's very hard to predict success during spring practices when players are in shorts and forbidden to make contact - or at least hard contact. But two rookies in particular looked good - Dashon Goldson and Thomas Clayton. Goldson is by far the tallest defensive back on the team - something that comes in handy in pass coverage - but showed good movement as well, ducking underneath receivers to come up with interceptions. Mike Nolan has said Goldson also had a reputation as a strong tackler at Washington, something the coach looks forward to seeing at training camp. Clayton, meanwhile, showed a nice combination of size, speed and receiving ability. Now can he take a hit?


1. You have to start with receiver Ashley Lelie, who ran a handful of pass patterns this spring before going down with an alarmingly slow-healing quadriceps pull. You can tell the coaches were not happy Lelie spent practically no time developing a rapport with Alex Smith. Asked about the fact that neither Lelie nor Darrell Jackson played much this spring, offensive coordinator Jim Hostler had this to say: "Ashley's a concern because Ashley hasn't played in this league. Darrell's not a concern."

2. Kwame Harris. The right tackle strained his back early in the first practice of OTAs and didn't practice again. One might have expected Harris, who will compete against Joe Staley, a first-round draft pick, to show more urgency in returning to practice.

3. Where was Larry Allen? The 49ers ostensibly brought him in last year in part for his veteran presence. But what kind of message does it send when a veteran leader doesn't show up to a single offseason function? The 49ers currently list Allen at 325 pounds, but you have to wonder about the accuracy at this point.

The team suffered two season-ending injuries this spring - to defensive end Melvin Oliver (knee) and cornerback B.J. Tucker (pectoral tear). Nolan, however, said he expects everyone else who missed time this spring to be on hand for the team's first training-camp practice. That list includes Allen, Harris, Jackson, Lelie, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, cornerback Donald Strickland, tackle Jonas Jennings and guard Justin Smiley.

June 20, 2007
Slow down, Grasshopper, it's only June

Question: I think most 49er fans are ecstatic with the rebuilding job of Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan. I'm starting to get that same feeling I had back in the early days of Bill Walsh. I would like to know if you feel Nolan and the 49ers have greatness in their near future.

Steve, Penryn

Answer: Let me shake my Magic 8-ball on that one. Hmm ... it says, "Ask again later."

- Matt Barrows

June 20, 2007
Battles on the offensive line

Question: Matthew, what are the chances, in your opinion, of Patrick Estes actually winning the starting job from Jonas Jennings at left tackle? Since Estes has been receiving all the minicamp/OTA reps, do you think he could pull it off? Same thing with David Baas and Justin Smiley. Who has the leg up on the JOe Staley/Kwame Harris competition?

Justin, Palo Alto

Answer: I don't see Estes taking Jennings' starting spot. However, I'm sure we're all familiar with Jennings' injury history. The coaching staff would love it if Estes becomes proficient enough to step in when - I mean if - Jennings goes down again. That also would allow Adam Snyder to concentrate on being the team's left guard of the future. As for Baas and Smiley, I really have no idea how that will turn out. History, however, would suggest Smiley wins the starting nod. Considering he hits the free-agent market at the end of the season, he has a lot to play for.

- Matt Barrows

June 20, 2007
They expect Willis to have things covered

Question: Could you give us your analysis of Patrick Willis at this point? Please address his abilities as a pass defender in particular.

Mike, Quincy

Answer: Too soon to tell, Mike. I will say this, though: The fact that the 49ers have him in their nickel package is more a testament to his speed than his coverage ability. That is, they expect him to be able to cover a lot of ground in zone packages.

- Matt Barrows

June 20, 2007
Lelie must show something soon

Question: Nolan is not the only one getting testy and antsy with Ashley Lelie. Since the first week of March, he has done what? Zip! At this rate he'll be virtually useless to Alex Smith. How much of a hit would we take unplugging him and plugging in Marcus Maxwell from Europe? Please, please, Matt, tell me Lelie is not another Jonas "I stubbed my toe so I can't play today" Jennings type, please. Another blog mentioned Derek Smith still has some visual limitations - is that so? How's he looking to you?

Sammy, Sacramento

Answer: Nolan definitely seemed a bit peeved with the receiver's slow recovery during OTAs. If that continues in training camp, I don't see Lelie lasting beyond cutdown day. As for Maxwell, I'm very excited to see how he does this summer. The guy tore up NFL Europe; it'll be interesting to see if he can continue that momentum in training camp. Smith said he has permanent damage in one of his eyes. However, it hasn't seemed to slow him down in OTAs. He's got a lot of pride and a lot to prove. I'm expecting to see the Derek Smith of 2005 this season, not the Derek Smith of 2006.

- Matt Barrows

June 20, 2007
Replay needs a revamp

Question: I saw your blog on instant replay. Why doesn't the league put an additional ref in the booth to catch bad calls? Why can't the booth overrule a call if they have video evidence of the error? To have the head referee trot over to a monitor to check an error wastes too much time. Having a person in the booth with authority would speed up the game and eliminate errors.

Scott, Elk Grove

Answer: I like that idea. Have a God-like figure in the booth to catch bad calls. I don't know about you guys, but I can usually tell immediately whether a call is good or not. Someone who has access to all sorts of replay angles should be able to do it just as quickly. Or at least more quickly than the tedious refs on the field.

- Matt Barrows

June 15, 2007
Successful switcheroos at left tackle

Sure, three-fifths of the 49ers' projected starting offensive line is sitting out spring practices. But there's a flip side to that situation: Coaches have plenty of time to evaluate the back-ups.

And so far, Mike Nolan likes what he sees.

Third-year player Patrick Estes, for example, joined the 49ers in 2005 having played tight end for four seasons at the University of Virginia. As you would expect, Estes moved well but didn't have the necessary bulk for his conversion to left tackle. Now he is up to 310 pounds and has looked good in organized team activities while filling in for Jonas Jennings at left tackle.

"He's athletic, he's intelligent, and he's bulked up," Nolan said today. "He looks the part now."

Nolan said the true test for Estes will come in training camp, when players put on their padding and engage in full-contact practices.

Nolan also is anxious to see Damane Duckett, who has made an even more dramatic switch than Estes. The 6-6 Duckett played defensive tackle his first three years in the league but was moved to left tackle this spring.

Nolan said the conversion has been a success and that Duckett might be a good candidate for the practice squad.

Other Observations

* Darrell Jackson reported that his toe - he has a hyperextended left big toe - felt good this morning after running on it early in the week. Nolan said he expected Jackson will be ready for the team's first training-camp practice on July 29. When the 49ers signed the receiver in April they wanted to make sure he did all his rehabilitation in Santa Clara.

* Safety Mark Roman was excused from practice, and Keith Lewis filled in for him.

As expected, cornerback B.J. Tucker will miss the season with a torn pectoral muscle. The injury requires a four- to six-month rehabilitation.

June 14, 2007
Tucker might be out long term

The 49ers suffered their second significant injury of the spring this week when cornerback B.J. Tucker went down with what appears to be a torn pectoral muscle.

Coach Mike Nolan said Thursday that the two-year veteran has yet to have an MRI but that the situation "doesn't look that good." The injury occurred in Tuesday's practice when Tucker stuck out his arm to stop an opposing player.

The Wisconsin product, who was born in Sierra Leone, had been practicing as the team's third cornerback because two other players, Shawntae Spencer (bone spurs) and Donald Strickland (knee contusion) had been out with injuries. Tucker's injury opens the door for a couple of youngsters, rookie Tarell Brown and second-year player Marcus Hudson, to step into a more important role on the defense.

The 49ers previously had lost defensive end Melvin Oliver to a torn knee ligament.

The team's recent OTAs are supposed to be noncontact, but Thursday's session showed that when 22 large men are thrown into a confined space, they are anything but.

On one play, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain was dropping back into coverage when he was undercut by cornerback Walt Harris, who was moving forward. Banta-Cain got up slowly but did not appear to be injured. On another play, rookie defensive backs Dashon Goldson and Sammy Joseph collided in the back of the end zone while trying to break up a Shaun Hill pass.

Other observations:

• Banta-Cain might be tipping the scales at close to 280 pounds, but he showed Thursday he could move that weight around. On a third-and-goal play, he flushed quarterback Alex Smith - no slow poke - out of bounds, forcing Smith to throw away the ball.

• Maurice Hicks, Brandon Williams, Arnaz Battle, Bryan Gilmore and Jason Hill alternated kickoff returns. Hicks, last year's return-man, got the most repetitions.

• The 49ers went through some of their practice in a 4-3 defense. On one play, the defensive ends were rookie Ray McDonald and Ronnie Fields while Bryant Young and Aubrayo Franklin lined up at defensive tackle.

• Tight end Delanie Walker missed Thursday's session for what Nolan described as "personal issues off the field." The team did not specify what those issues were.

- Matthew Barrows

June 12, 2007
OTA observations

Sloppy Tuesday at 49ers headquarters.

A botched snap here. A false start there. A receiver slipping. An overthrown pass. It happened so many times Tuesday that Mike Nolan stopped practice and gathered the team at midfield - almost to jar the 49ers' offense out of its funk.

"We had several plays in a row, back-to-back, where players were taking turns on who was going to mess up," he said. "There were presnap penalties and just some foul-ups. So I just wanted to stop them and point out the importance of - you know, you're going to have moments like this in a game and you don't want to make it a game like this."

Of course, the defense also contributed to the offense's woes. The best play was turned in by second-year cornerback Marcus Hudson, who jumped an out route by receiver Bryan Gilmore. Hudson grabbed Alex Smith's pass in stride and then took off to the end zone.

The competition between Hudson and fifth-round draft pick Tarell Brown for one of the backup cornerback positions is shaping up to be one of the best in training camp. Two holdovers from last season - B.J. Tucker and Donald Strickland - also figure into the mix. In fact, with Strickland (knee) and Shawntae Spencer (bone spurs) on the sideline this week, Tucker has been the 49ers' No. 3 cornerback.

Other observations:

• Running back Frank Gore was back running hard after tweaking his hamstring Monday. The 49ers spent a lot of time throwing to their running backs Tuesday, and all four players - Gore, Michael Robinson, Maurice Hicks and Michael Clayton - appear to be accomplished receivers out of the backfield.

• Nolan had his punt returners try and catch punts while holding a ball in each arm. "It makes you square up to the ball," he said. The only player to accomplish the feat was cornerback Nate Clements. Nolan wanted to see if he could do it himself but none of the punters could get the ball to him. "They're afraid of me, I guess," he said.

• First-round draft pick Joe Staley is up to 315 pounds after playing at 295 last season at Central Michigan. The 49ers want Staley to concentrate this season on right tackle, which faces bigger, more physical defensive ends.

- Matthew Barrows

June 11, 2007
Rayburn's signing not by the numbers

The 49ers officially signed defensive lineman Sam Rayburn today and welcomed the 303-pounder by giving him one of the ugliest numbers available - 61.

"That's just temporary I hope," said Rayburn, who wore No. 91, currently taken by rookie Ray McDonald, while with the Philadelphia Eagles.

But No. 61 seems rather appropriate for a blue-collar player who has built his career on grunt work. His nickname with the Eagles, after all, was "Truck Driver."

An undrafted free agent out of Tulsa, Rayburn played defensive tackle in the Eagles' 4-3 scheme but will mostly be used as a left defensive end in the 49ers' 3-4. Rayburn said he had never played a 3-4, but after mostly watching today's practice, he said his role won't be terribly different than what he did in Philadelphia.

"It didn't seem like it will be too difficult," he said before depositing a wad of chewing tobacco on the ground. "It's just one spot over."

Other observations:

* Running back Frank Gore tweaked his hamstring early in practice and was held out for the rest of the session. The team's leading rusher from a year ago walked off the practice field with a slight limp, but the injury is not believed to be serious. Michael Robinson, Maurice Hicks and rookie Thomas Clayton divided the carries in Gore's absence.

* Mike Nolan didn't mince words about his desire to see Ashley Lelie return to the practice field. Since being signed as a free-agent, the lanky receiver has missed all but a handful of practice plays with a strained quadriceps. "I guess we'll have to wait until training camp, but I'd like to see him get out here and do something," Nolan said.

* Safety Keith Lewis picked off an Alex Smith pass in the back of the end zone while another safety, rookie Dashon Goldson, made a nice break on the ball on an interception of Trent Dilfer.

* Rookie cornerback Tarrel Brown had a rough introduction to punt-return duties, dropping several attempts. Brandon Williams and Arnaz Battle appear to be the top candidates for the job.
- Matthew Barrows

June 10, 2007
The Smiley issue

Question: What do you think the chances are that the 49ers trade Justin Smiley before the beginning of the regular season and do you think the 49ers would accept a third-round pick for him?

Justin, Palo Alto

Answer: I think it will depend on whether another team has a rash of o-line injuries in training camp. It seems all the teams that were interested in trading for Smiley ended up picking guards in the draft. I just don't see a team giving up a high pick in next year's draft for a player who hits the free-agent market - and will command a hefty paycheck - in March. As for a third-rounder, I think the 49ers would go for that, especially if they feel confident in David Baas.

- Matt Barrows

June 10, 2007
Everybody has a gripe

Question: Hey, Matt, If you recall last year, the refs took two games away from the Niners - the Eagles game and one of the Rams games - with a series of extremely bad calls. Have you heard if the NFL front office has done anything to address poor flag throwing? I do not want to see a repeat this year with the playoffs in the picture, and actually had it not been for those egregious calls the team would have made the playoffs last year. Oh, well. Go NINERS!

Ricky, Bedford, Va.

Answer: Well, I'm sure every fan in the country has a short list of examples of how the refs ripped off their team. My beef is that we have this absolutely tedious replay system, which slows the game and breaks up the flow, and yet blown calls are still commonplace. I am very much anti-instant replay. In my opinion, human error is part of the game - by coaches, by players and by refs. Instant replay isn't eliminating those errors, so why have it?

- Matt Barrows

June 10, 2007
No deep pockets for another corner

Question: If Asante Samuel doesn't re-sign with the Patriots, do you think there will be any chance of him coming over to San Francisco? Even though we picked up Nate Clements, I think a lockdown corner like Asante on the other side of the field would be a great pickup - if the 49ers could afford him.

Kyle, San Carlos

Answer: The answer is no. Even if the 49ers could afford it (and not risk another salary-cap disaster) I don't think they'd spend that amount of money on one position. It's like diversifying your portfolio when investing - you don't want to put all your eggs (or bucks, as it were) in one basket.

- Matt Barrows

June 10, 2007
Can Staley unseat Harris?

Question: Kwame Harris has been a weak point in an otherwise strong o-line. He seems to get beat a lot and commits a lot of untimely penalties. Is there an upside to him that I am not seeing, or has he been the only option at his position and that's why he plays? What's the likelihood he gets beat out by rookie Joe Staley and loses his starting position? If he were to lose his starting position, would he then become an adequate backup?

Paul, Lodi

Answer: These are all good questions, Paul. As of now, Staley is getting lots of valuable playing time while Harris recovers from a back injury. If the injury continues, he definitely is in danger of being Wally Pipp-ed by the rookie. If Harris is relegated to backup duty, I'm not sure he'd be the backup at anything but right tackle. Adam Snyder has been a solid fill-in at left tackle in the past, and the 49ers likely will stick with him there.

- Matt Barrows

June 10, 2007
Defensive concerns

Question: I noticed that Banta-Cain checked in at 280 pounds. Is he going to be any good in coverage at that weight? Or is he going to have to lose 20-30 pounds first? Who is his backup? On a related note, how are the safeties working out in coverage? Neither of the Lewis boys seems to have a good rep when it comes to coverage. Does this give an opening to Dashon Goldson and/or Marcus Hudson as possible starters?

Ken, Sacramento

Answer: Tully Banta-Cain (heretofore TBC) is trying to get down to 265 or so before the season begins. He certainly hasn't looked spry in practice, but I watched him get inside left tackle Patrick Estes on Friday and power toward the quarterback, which is to say his bulk comes in handy when collapsing the pocket. He and Manny Lawson will switch outside linebacker positions over the course of a game, so you would have to say Parys Haralson, Roderick Green, Hannibal Navies and rookie Jay Moore all are backups.

As for safety, I watched Michael Lewis struggle to keep pace with the slot receiver, Brandon Williams, in passing situations this week. Still, I think it's way too early to declare him a dud in coverage, especially when his forte - physical play - is eliminated in non-contact practices. Goldson definitely has shown some pass-coverage ability early, but he is playing against second-team talent. Hudson is playing cornerback.

- Matt Barrows

June 10, 2007
No breeze for rookie Willis; Smith-Davis chemistry grows

Question: Great job with the blog. Please keep it up!

I was wondering how well is Patrick Willis doing? Is he still looking tentative, or is his speed starting to show up? Also, I've heard some good things about Alex Smith so far. I know, I know, it's only OTAs and there are no pads and no "real" pass rush. However, I'm interested in finding out if he's getting rid of the ball quicker and if he's hitting more guys in stride. Those are the two areas I think he needs the most improvement on. What say you?

Scott, Hercules

Answer: Hi, Scott. As far as Willis, he hasn't jumped out yet. In fact, the guy playing in front of him, Derek Smith, looked especially good all week. Smith is a savvy veteran with a lot to prove this year. My prediction is he gives Willis a hell of a fight for that starting spot. Alex has looked good. One troubling development, though, is that he has yet to do any meaningful work with his top two projected receivers, Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie. Last year at this time, he was throwing extensively to Antonio Bryant, and that connection paid dividends at the start of the season. One bright spot is that he is throwing a lot to Vernon Davis. If I had to make a guess in June as to Smith's top receiver (in receptions) at the end of the season, I would definitely go with Davis.

- Matt Barrows

June 8, 2007
Welcome to the 49ers gun show

There are two members of the 49ers who like to practice with their sleeves rolled up: tight end Vernon Davis and rookie running back Thomas Clayton. And why not? Those two have arguably the two best physiques on the team, including arms that are anaconda-esque in thickness.

Keeping in mind that practices are non-contact and that a player is considered "down" when he is touched by a defender, Clayton has looked good so far in organized team activities (OTAs). Today he showed excellent burst during a run up the middle, which he finished with an impressive dash into the end zone.

Davis, meanwhile, is emerging as Alex Smith's favorite target. Part of that is because Smith's top wide receivers have been sidelined with injuries. But Davis also seems even more aggressive than he was last season, if that's possible. Today linebacker Manny Lawson had a hard time keeping up with Davis on a couple of pass patterns. At one point, the 49ers' quarterback forced a throw to Davis in traffic. The tight end not only caught it, he bowled over Lawson in the process and then scampered into the end zone

Nice snag - The coaching staff had mixed reactions when tight end Delanie Walker reached out with his right arm and made a circus-like one-handed grab. It was a beautiful catch, and one reminiscent of Walker's feats last season. But the 49ers also are wary of their second-year tight end re-injuring his right shoulder, which he separated last year and which required surgery this offseason. Walker is one of only four tight ends on the roster.

Take a look - At least one member of the 49ers' scouting staff will be on hand for Georgia cornerback Paul Oliver's June 20 workout in Athens, Ga. So far, Oliver is the only player to declare for the supplemental draft that will be held July 12.

Injuries - Arnaz Battle worked out with a team trainer but did not practice for the third straight day. Nolan said he thought Battle would be back Monday. The team is hoping that right tackle Kwame Harris (back) returns to practice by the middle of next week. Rookie Joe Staley has been filling in in Harris' absence.
- Matthew Barrows

June 7, 2007
Fairly full at fullback

Coach Mike Nolan said today the 49ers didn't have any interest at the moment in Cardinals fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo, who was released this week by the Arizona Cardinals.

Nolan is familiar with Ayanbadejo from their days with the Baltimore Ravens. He said the 230-pound fullback has skills similar to two players already on the roster, Michael Robinson and Zak Keasey.

"Right now, with the competition we have, we're not going to do anything (at fullback)," he said.

Though the team has only one true blocking fullback, Moran Norris, on the roster, several players could line up in the backfield in case of an injury. The 49ers also conceivably could call upon a player from last year's roster, Chris Hetherington, in case of an emergency. Hetherington is a free agent.

Arnaz Battle (hamstring) was held out of practice for the second time this week, but Nolan said he expects Battle back on Friday. Fellow receivers Darrell Jackson (toe) and Ashley Lelie (quadriceps) also sat out the practice, making Bryan Gilmore and Taylor Jacobs the top two receivers. Cornerback Donald Strickland (knee contusion) also sat out.

The defense seemed to get the better of its offensive mates during Thursday's sessions. Cornerback Nate Clements twice knocked the ball from tight end Vernon Davis' hands in the end zone, and safeties Dashon Goldson and Keith Lewis also batted down passes. Backup cornerback Marcus Hudson picked off a Trent Dilfer pass, and linebacker Colby Bockwoldt came down with another interception off a deflected pass. Of all the rookies, Goldson, a fourth-rounder out of Washington, has made the most immediate impact.
- Matthew Barrows

June 5, 2007
OTA observations

The 49ers held two more receivers out of practice today - Ashley Lelie, who tweaked his quadriceps Monday, and Arnaz Battle, whose hamstring tightened up Monday. Veteran Darrell Jackson already is sitting out the camp while he recovers from turf toe. The absences meant more work for Bryan Gilmore, Brandon Williams and good-looking rookie Jason Hill.

• Defensive end Melvin Oliver went down with a right knee sprain, but coach Mike Nolan said the second-year player should be fine. Oliver played extensively last season, even scoring a touchdown in a win over the Raiders. This year, however, he might be hard-pressed for playing time. He currently is lining up at left defensive end as a backup to Bryant Young. However, Ronald Fields might be the first player off the bench at that position.

• Quarterback Alex Smith looked sharp Monday, particularly when he threaded the needle on an over-the-middle pass to Hill. He also showed nice touch on a pass over the zone defense to tight end Vernon Davis, who easily scored during team drills.

• Nolan said several players, including 215-pound cornerback Nate Clements, are carrying extra weight this spring with the expectation they will lose it in the summer. "They play a little heavier this time of year to get stronger in the weight room," he said. Nolan also noted it was Clements' bulk - his playing weight is about 210 pounds - that has enabled him to be so durable over the past six seasons.

• First-round draft pick Patrick Willis worked one-on-one with linebackers coach Mike Singletary for about 10 minutes after Monday's session. Nolan had high praise for Willis and two other rookies, defensive backs Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown.

• The 49ers continued to bulk up their defensive line when they agreed to terms with Sam Rayburn, a former Philadelphia Eagles lineman who was released last month. Rayburn's statistics weren't flashy with the Eagles - nine sacks in four seasons - but the 303-pounder is the type of blue-collar worker the 49ers want on their revamped defensive line.

- Matt Barrows

June 4, 2007
Rookie Hill is catching on

SANTA CLARA - Jason Hill has a long way to go toward winning the trust of 49ers coaches and quarterbacks.

But the rookie receiver took his first small step in that direction Monday with a diving catch along the sideline. Quarterback Trent Dilfer had nowhere else to go with the ball, so he threw a dart down and away in a spot where no one but Hill had a shot at it. The San Francisco native not only caught it, he sprung up and raced downfield toward the end zone.

When he got back in the huddle, Dilfer gave the rookie a thumbs up, telling him plays like that build confidence in the mind of a quarterback.

Said Hill: "My eyes lit up when Trent told me that."

During the 49ers' minicamp last month, Hill's eyes were mostly glazed over. Like most rookies, he didn't know where to line up and had trouble digesting even the limited game plan the coaches fed the newcomers. As a result, he was in on only a handful of plays during the three-day camp.

"It was like learning French, man," Hill said. "It was totally new to me."

He ought to get far more work during the team's current organized team activities, or OTAs, which last until June 22.

The 49ers' top receiver, Darrell Jackson, is out until training camp with a toe injury while the player ahead of Hill on the depth chart, free-agent addition Ashley Lelie, is slowed by a quadriceps injury. Lelie missed nearly all of the minicamp with a strained quadriceps and was held back Monday when he felt the muscle tighten.

"I definitely see an opening," Hill said. "This is my time to shine. Whether the (other receivers) are injured or not, this is my time to shine."

Coach Mike Nolan is hesitant to evaluate players in the spring when, in his words, "they're running around in shorts." But he said he thought Hill already was better than he was a month ago.

Still, that can change.

"If you ask me tomorrow, I might be on his (butt)," Nolan said.

Injury updates - Center Eric Heitmann and tight end Delanie Walker are being eased back into practice after missing the team's May minicamp. Heitmann broke his leg early in the team's Dec. 14 game in Seattle but has made a quick recovery. Walker, meanwhile, had offseason shoulder surgery after suffering a dislocated shoulder last summer.

Jackson (toe), tackle Jonas Jennings (shoulder), guard Justin Smiley (shoulder) and cornerback Shawntae Spencer (bone spurs) are being held out of OTAs and will return for training camp.

Right tackle Kwame Harris, meanwhile, suffered back spasms early in Monday's practice. Rookie Joe Staley stepped in for him.

New kid on the block - Thin at fullback, the 49ers got a bit deeper at the position when rookie Steve Dildine, a linebacker at Washington State, decided to try his hand at blocking. The 6-foot, 238-pound Dildine is following in the footsteps of Zak Keasey, a Princeton linebacker who switched to fullback upon joining the 49ers last year.

As of now, Keasey and Dildine are the only fullbacks backing up starter Moran Norris.

Pick again - Personnel chief Scot McCloughan said the 49ers will do their due diligence on Paul Oliver, a cornerback out of Georgia who intends to enter the supplemental draft.

"He's an intriguing guy," McCloughan said. "He started every game in the SEC (last year). There's something to be said for that."

So far, Oliver is the only player to declare for the supplemental draft, which is scheduled for July 12.

Many happy returns - Brandon Williams, Arnaz Battle and Nate Clements all took turns returning punts Monday. Battle or Clements likely will be Williams' backup. As far as returning kicks, Nolan said he'd like to see how rookie cornerback Tarell Brown, who performed the duty at Texas, handles the role.

Not well suited - Nolan said he has been informed by the NFL and Reebok that he will be permitted to wear a suit on the sideline only twice this upcoming season. Nolan wants to honor his father, former 49ers coach Dick Nolan, as well as other coaches of that era, by wearing a suit and tie every game.

- Matt Barrows

June 4, 2007
Depth chart looks same after month off

It has been nearly a month since the 49ers last assembled as a team, but there seemed to be little difference on the depth chart during Monday's organized team activities.

The starting offensive line, from left to right, was Patrick Estes, Adam Snyder, Eric Heitmann, David Baas and rookie Joe Staley. Jonas Jennings and Justin Smiley still are recovering from shoulder surgeries, while guard Larry Allen has been granted permission to work out from home. Coach Mike Nolan said he has spoken with Allen on the phone and has been reassured Allen will show up in shape. Kwame Harris, meanwhile, started the day at right tackle but suffered a back spasm and was held out.

At wide receiver, Arnaz Battle and Bryan Gilmore again were the starters, although Ashley Lelie and rookie Jason Hill got far more work than they did at the May minicamp. Hill made two diving catches along the sideline. Lelie, however, felt his problematic quadriceps muscle tighten up and went through only half the practice.

On defense, Bryant Young missed the minicamp to attend Kevin Mitchell's funeral but was back Monday as the starting left defensive end. Aubrayo Franklin started at nose tackle and Marques Douglas was the starter at right defensive end.

The team also released a list of its current weights. This has been a perennial problem for reporters in the past because the listed weights never were updated. The team would copy down what the player weighed in college and that was the guy's weight for the duration of his 49ers career. In 2003, for example, the media guide listed linebacker Jeff Ulbrich at 249 pounds when in fact he was about 230.

Some of the actual weights are intriguing. Franklin, for example, weighs 334 pounds while Young, who has been in the 290-pound range for most of his career, tipped the scales at 305. Those weights likely will drop somewhat during training camp, but it's nice to have accurate numbers now.

Other weights of note: Rookie running back Thomas Clayton is 225 pounds after being listed at 205 pounds when he was drafted. Cornerback Nate Clements is 215 pounds, while cornerback Shawntae Spencer weighs 179. First-round draft pick Patrick Willis weighed in at 242.

- Matt Barrows

June 3, 2007
Is it all about Maxwell in the house?

Question: Hey, Matt, hope you had a great Memorial Day. Now back to business. Marcus Maxwell? Rumor has it this kid is dominating NFL Europa. Being compared to, dare I say it, T.O.? He has packed on some muscle. So what should fans expect from this guy? Will he even make the team? If so, who's the odd man out? He's a seventh-round pick. Diamonds are found in the rough (Marques Colston). Matt, am I getting too excited or what? Fill us in.

Jason, Sacramento

Answer: Seeing as how I wrote that story on Marcus Maxwell, I can confirm the rumors. He's doing great overseas and had 81 receiving yards and another touchdown in the Hamburg Sea Devils' win over Cologne this weekend. As is the case with most receivers, Maxwell's hurdle with the 49ers has been getting separation with defensive backs. The fact that he has added muscle will help in that regard. The real benefit is a huge leap in confidence - he's going to enter training camp believing he can be a big-time receiver.

Will he make the team? Hard to say. The best thing he has going for him is that he fits the mold McNolan wants at receiver - a big, strong guy who can block and catch passes in traffic. With Eric Johnson in New Orleans, it's possible six receivers could make the 49ers this year. If so, I think they will be Arnaz Battle, Darrell Jackson, Jason Hill, Ashley Lelie, Brandon Williams and Marcus Maxwell.

- Matt Barrows

June 3, 2007
Coverage could be safeties' weakness

Question: Matt, I really enjoy your Q&A. I really love the potential of the 49ers' defense this year; my only real concern is the safety position. It has great run-stopping potential but it doesn't seem like we have enough pass-coverage ability back there. How do you view the safety position?

Steve, Penryn

Answer: The safeties certainly will be able to punish runners and pass catchers alike, but you're right - Michael Lewis and Keith Lewis, two of the top three safeties, aren't exactly known for their coverage ability. I think the addition of Nate Clements at cornerback somewhat diminishes the need for a great coverage safety. The plan is to have Clements take away half the field and allow Michael Lewis to play closer to the line of scrimmage. The secondary as a whole seems designed to take on the big, physical Cardinals receivers who have given the 49ers fits in recent years. You have to wonder, though, how it will fare against the speedier, shiftier receivers on the Rams and Seahawks.

- Matt Barrows

June 3, 2007
Looking for happier returns

Question: A good offense often starts with a good defense. But a good special teams can decide the outcome of a game. Who do you think will return kicks, Matt? On kickoffs, will they stick to Maurice Hicks or will Battle now be moved to that duty and punt returns?

Matt, Auburn

Answer: Just a guess at this point, but I think Brandon Williams will return punts. He's not nearly as explosive as some other young returners, but he is very sure-handed, and Nolan treasures that above all else. Kick returner is harder to predict. There's no guarantee Hicks or Bryan Gilmore, two guys who handled those duties last year, even will make the final roster, so you can't pencil them in. Maybe it will be Battle, but it also could be one of the rookies - Jason Hill, Tarell Brown or Thomas Clayton.

- Matt Barrows

June 3, 2007
Don't expect to see Jennings dumped

Question: The oft-injured Jonas Jennings has been a major disappointment these past two years, even though he is one of the highest paid o-linemen in the league. Adam Snyder is much cheaper, he is years younger than Jennings, and he has shown promise in his stints at left tackle. Any chance that Jennings and his $7 million bloated salary get released, especially with Joe Staley now in the mix?

Gordon, Rancho Murieta

Answer: No chance - mainly because the 49ers aren't in any salary-cap straits at the moment. Jennings actually is a pretty good blocker. His problem is that he has yet to make it through a full season without coming down with one ailment or another. And don't forget - the team's embarrassment of riches along the offensive line won't last beyond this season when Justin Smiley, Kwame Harris and possibly Larry Allen are gone. That means Snyder could be needed at one of the guard positions while Staley might have to play right tackle.

- Matt Barrows

June 3, 2007
First, make sure you get Mr. Davis' signature

Question: Can the 49ers share a stadium with Al Davis, who ran out on the Rams?

E. Morrison, Fairfield

Answer: They would need to get everything in writing first, that's for sure. But I think a shared stadium would benefit both teams, not to mention the City of Santa Clara. Seems like a no-brainer to me. But then again, I'm only a thousandaire. What do I know?

- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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